"A Rockhoof and a Hard Place" Review (Revised)
From the blog "Dark Qiviut's Columns"
Note: Credit to @gingerninja666, @Ganondox, @Theanimationfanatic, and Justin Galloway on YT for this review, which has been revised to expand my thoughts better and for better editing as a whole.
Out of every legend from Season 7B, Rockhoof's was the worst. Combined with being a boring character, the story itself was very bland, and Applejack told the entire thing rather than letting the tale show. It's competent, but completely uninteresting. How ironic that in his first self-contained episode, ARaaHP is spectacular with some of the best characterization of a Pillar since they were first introduced.
Hard Place is a "fish out of water" story, an idiom that puts the character in a setting or situation they're very foreign or uncomfortable with. DHX holds none of the comedy back, which had a lot of variety, but mostly came from the characters' reactions, starting off with Professor Fossil. Rockhoof doesn't understand preservation at all, because he lived in the era she continues to discover, emphasized by his destruction of an old sweat lodge (rightfully upsetting her) and triggering the conflict.
Fossil's line, which sounded completely innocent on the surface, foreshadows future events while remaining wonderfully subtle:
The scene in the auditorium to begin Act 1, while adding on to Rockhoof's inability to adapt to modern times, established connections, providing pivotal context as the episode progressed. Rockhoof's a Pillar, adding to the mystique and adoration from folks across generations. Most of this generation in the School of Friendship's very young, with five of the six unfamiliar with pony folklore. Smolder's sarcasm in response to Rockhoof's first accident is just one opinion (which changed as he told his story of his fight with an Ursa Major), but Yona adored him immediately, because his strength and bravery remind her of yakdom back home.
As for the rest of Act 1, there was criticism of what Ocellus said about Discord's stone transformation (Celly and Luna casting a spell) as not being true to continuity. That's not true. From Princess Twilight Sparkle, Part 2:
Sisters power up the Elements.
Them casting a spell. The Elements couldn't turn him to stone alone.
And I agree with YouTuber Justin Galloway regarding this point (his comment from this video link):
Personally, I can't blame the students for feeling excited (and Gallus lying about the class's direction). Learning can be fun, but sometimes boring, and Gallus is the perfect rebel to steer the class and Rockhoof in another direction. The story, despite in small doses and done to further emphasize his trouble to adapt, was really entertaining.
To reiterate, the comedy in this episode as a whole is absolutely fantastic. This one in particular is probably the best one. (You know what I'm talkin' about. )
Several other funny moments include:
Rockhoof incredulously swatting decorative set pieces out the school window, not knowing it belonged to Rarity for class (and was not created to fool him).
Despite all of the carnage inside Twilight's classroom, the worst he can do to her wooden desk is squish it like a marshmallow.
Cranky being heavily embarrassed after Cranky announced he had a rash somewhere in his privates. OTOH, in hindsight, this accidental embarrassment was well-earned for Cranky, who spent all day in the school treating the students like garbage on the buckball pitch.
During Somnambula's speech, Rockhoof suddenly falls asleep and squashes a mare behind him. XD
Despite doing so inside the school (even though Twilight told him to wait previously and didn't react at all to the fire), Spike and Smolder's bond continues to evolve through a fire-breathing competition. Small, but compared to their conversation in Molt Down, they're more comfortable around each other, and she's not so bristly towards him.
That said, no matter the jokes or how much Rockhoof screws up, the episode never treats him as dumb at any point, which @Theanimationfanatic points out. Everywhere he works, he's always willing to impress, whether it's delivering the post to the right house, massaging, helping Zecora, or teaching. Wherever he went long ago, his warrior-first instincts aided him, and he applies them here. Today, harmony replaced war. He doesn't need to fight much anymore, especially now with Stygian redeemed. As a result, he screws up, sometimes badly, yet the episode does a great job not making him look worse each time he faults. To expand my reply, his struggle feels real, and he always works to at least try to succeed; at times, he does the right thing, but overlooks one crucial detail, whether it's teaching instead of preparing for battle, trying to relive life on his soil rather than retaining its history, and so forth. As a result, we sympathize for him and root for him to succeed. It's a major strength that the episode worked very hard in getting right.
What's more interesting is how most of the Pillars still contact each other and know their whereabouts, but not Rockhoof. Despite their close connection as champions and friends, it also shows us an audience how distanced Rockhoof became since the Pillars split. He goes back home and virtually spends his days there, as if his life is complete. He can keep his shovel, but not need to use it. He remains a warrior, but as the episode progresses, he realizes he's less of a warrior, but now a veteran who can't settle after being gone so long.
On the other hand, DHX/Top Draw puts forth a lot of effort to make the other Pillars's adaptations as seamless as possible. My favorite is Mistmane's just because of her work in The Crystal Empire.
There are a lot of amazing set designs throughout the series. But Twilight's right. The imagery here's some of the most beautiful ever put forth for the show. The composition, colors, crystal designs, light, shadow, and perspective are so organic to the country.
As the episode progressed, Rockhoof's struggles slowly took a toll. Sulking away from the School started it, and his doubts reappeared in the CE scene, especially after he tells her that shovel ponies aren't in current demand. It progresses further by accident after Meadowbrook was able to open her clinic back home and then after Twilight finds Stygian's new novel. Both of these sting him for two reasons:
He can't go home.
If STYGIAN can adapt, why can't him?!
But the final trigger? Accidentally sinking the Aris navy. @gingerninja666 explains that point perfectly:
And it's after this when Rockhoof requests to be turned to stone. Mpambara doesn't hide one bit how it's an allegory of suicide, and his (the writer's) logic narrows this down in several key areas:
No matter how hard he tries, he's always one step behind, and he can't catch up. Everyone successfully adjusted, but all he does is, in his eyes, ruin his reputation, and it's not only self-embarrassing, but also self-deflating. If he can't rely on using the stars to navigate around the world, then what can he do now?
Rockhoof believes his friends are better off without him. Because he can't transition, he believes he looks weak to them, even though he means so much to them and were willing to help him in any way they can. That's why he avoided communicating with them for so long.
He understands how much the Realm idolizes him and the others, but he doesn't want them to think of him as the washed-up veteran he became, but the warrior they grew up remembering. Turning into stone means preserving his legacy. Older adults are at highest risk for suicide; for U.S. veterans, twenty died by suicide daily in 2014, 65% of them 50 years or older. @Ganondox even pointed out an even sadder implication of one reason why an elder may commit suicide, and one powerful Golden Girls episode long ago does the same. Rockhoof's generation is long gone; he's the lone relic left. He believes his time has passed him. Additionally, he fears of what's to come. What if he stays un-stoned, and everyone sees him as this old relic who relishes for the good old days? He doesn't want to look old, washed up, and useless.
Twilight agreed to write a stone spell, thereby assisting his suicide. The fact that it's temporary doesn't change the implications.
Everyone reacted to Rockhoof's wish in complete horror. Twilight didn't want to write it, because she knew he belonged somewhere. But the students, especially Yona, reacted the hardest for obvious reasons.
The followup scene in the castle hallway is one of the best of the series. Yona developed a student-to-teacher crush on him, but when his life was in danger, she came right to him, and her idolization for him evolves, evident by the class report she recited. She's in school in Equestria, where no one looks like her or shares her interests; her constant running almost got her into big trouble immediately, and Neighsay spouting racism towards non-ponies doesn't help. Bonding with others eases her fears and makes her feel safe. His ability to be strong, brave, and persevere inspired countless individuals, including her, who's innocent and childlike. Their chemistry and her admiration are incredibly genuine, and the fact she stood up for him and convinced everyone in the school to gather around outside and listen to his stories at maybe the lowest moment of his life makes him realize at just that moment he means so much to them.
It fixes a big problem from two previous episodes: Magic Sheep and No Second Prances.
Magic Sheep: Luna's Tantabus creation is an allegory of either depression or addiction. Self-punishing with the Tantabus not only reminded her of her crimes long ago, but also gave her an escape from the torment she inwardly suffered. But it's marred by an awfully-executed moral, thanks to its rushed, absolute ending. Addiction and illness don't magically disappear.
NSP: After Trixie and Starlight fell out, Trixie acted like she didn't want to live anymore, but it's an unfortunate implication, and Twilight and Starlight doing nothing as she treks into her cannon is just insulting.
Here, A Rockhoof and a Hard Place tackled a really dark subject, but took a long time developing the allegory, provided key clues foreshadowing what was coming, and treated it with the delicateness and seriousness it so richly deserves. The moral it teaches — "No matter how hurt, lonely, or hopeless you feel, you matter." — is also magnificently executed.
But it isn't just Yona and Rockhoof. AJ and Twilight were really good in their roles, too. Twi may lead the school, but she trusted AJ into conversing with each other and letting AJ help guide her and him wherever he went. Working with him and helping him was a team effort throughout.
More importantly, Mpambara keeps Spike in character in Act 3 without looking insensitive. How? With this shot:
Spike has a history of being snarky, but thanks to the suicide allegory, his sarcasm, sardonicism, and sometimes blasé behavior won't fit at all to the tone and messaging DHX is aiming. If not careful, viewers may end up hating his portrayal. By opening the act with him asleep and then woken up with a start, the episode instantly sets part of the tone, and his sleepy behavior parades into the classroom, allowing DHX to use his snark for comedy without unfortunate implications.
This episode was an amazing surprise. Because Season 8 was so good up to this point, I had high expectations for this one. After watching it the first time, I knew it was great. But watching it again and again helped me pay closer attention to the effort put into creating this wonderful story. Ever since I first watched the S8 leaks last year, I had Break Down as its best. A Rockhoof and a Hard Place replaced it, and it's one of the ten best of the whole show. Bravo!
P.S.: Those who read my statuses may have read and followed my episode order, but for those who don't, this is my current top-10 of the series (including Rockhoof):
The Perfect Pear
The Best Night Ever
Crusaders of the Lost Mark
The Cutie Map
A Rockhoof and a Hard Place
The Break Up Break Down
An episode of such a quality deserves such a spot. More can't be said about how amazing Hard Place is.